I love seeing a family sitting in the pews worshipping together for an entire service. I know what you’re probably thinking. If you don’t have any small children living in your house, you are thinking how annoying, wiggly and noisy all of those children are and how they disrupt worship service. If you have small children, you are thinking it has been awhile since I have tried to keep multiple small children behaving during a long service.
While both of those are valid points, in my last two posts, I have addressed why I think our children really need to be in worship with us. I have also thrown out some suggestions I believe will help all of us see our entire congregations as one large family worshipping together. What I haven’t shared is my secret bag of tricks, that will hopefully make the experience more pleasant and meaningful for everyone.
There are really four secrets you can use to help include your children in your worship experience without losing your mind in the process. Many things about worship you can’t control, but these four you can most of the time. So how did we manage to keep our child in worship from birth until her teen years with minimal glares and exhaustion? Here are my four top secrets (in no particular order):
1. A good night’s sleep. My pediatrician (Johns Hopkins trained) and I have had this discussion for years. Most children do not get nearly enough sleep. Ever. Many behavioral problems result because your children are overtired. Children from birth until adulthood should get at least 10-12 hours a night. Yes, even (and especially) teens. If your children are consistently getting only eight to nine hours or less of sleep a night, they are not getting enough rest. Ignore the whines and get your children the sleep they need. You may just be surprised at how pleasant and well behaved they really are!
2. Breakfast. I am still amazed at the number of children in middle-class churches who come to service starving. In the rush to get to Church on time, most of our children aren’t getting any breakfast. When you factor in that elementary children are often used to eating lunch as early as 10 am on school days, you are sitting with some starving children in church. As any honest, experienced parent will tell you, blood sugar can be your friend. When it dips, children can get very cranky and weepy. Give your child breakfast, even if (horrors) it is in the car on the way or is a quiet snack packed to eat during the sermon. Keeping your children’s blood sugar level will increase the odds their behavior will be on a more even keel also.
3. Train your child to sit quietly when bored for up to 30 minutes. Do not tell me it isn’t possible. I have seen children do it for years (even many with various special needs, although this is not physically possible for all children with special needs). It does not stifle their spirit, make them hate you or scar them for life. In fact, it may one day save their life (absolute obedience and self-control can be critical when a car is barreling towards you), and will definitely make a very favorable impression on any teachers they may have. Toddlers will have to practice and gradually work up to thirty minutes, but they too can sit still much longer than people give them credit for being able to do. Activity bags will help make the quiet sitting parts of worship more tolerable for your children and enable them to sit quietly for longer periods of time.
4. A meaningful worship activity bag. This bag is a must for every child under the age of eight to ten (depending on the maturity of the child and the child friendliness of your service. I have worshipped some places where I needed an activity bag to stay focused!). Each child should have his own re-usable tote bag which is only used during worship services. You can place any quiet activities in the bag, but I would suggest placing meaningful items in there to help enhance the worship experience. So what are “meaningful” items?
Here are some suggestions for meaningful items to place in worship activity bags (Note: For very small children the bags are used during prayers, communion, long announcements or scripture readings and sermons. As the children mature, they should only be used during the sermon. Children of all ages should be encouraged to “sing” the best they can, with parents picking up and holding smaller children when the congregation stands. Older children should always stand when everyone stands and be expected to try to sing and pray):
- For babies and toddlers, a quiet book with a Bible theme. You can find these in Bible bookstores, online or there are free patterns to make your own on the internet. I made my daughter’s and it is still in great condition even after a lot of weekly wear and tear. Think about an alphabet book with things God made or a Noah’s Ark book with all of the animals on the Ark. Your child is too young to read so it doesn’t have to be elaborate. It just needs some activities within the book that are quiet and keep them entertained.
- When they are slightly older, fill the bag with Bible themed or Bible story board books, picture books or elementary level books.
- Babies, toddlers and even some older children need a quiet “fiddle” toy. This is something they can fiddle with, but still listen and pay attention. A set of those large rubber key rings, a rag doll or a stress ball can work well. Children, who are teething, also need a teething toy for those weeks when they are in pain.
- A quiet snack. Cheerios have been the go-to snack for years and those new gyro bowls will keep spillage to a minimum. Just make sure it is something and in an amount that you aren’t messing up your lunch schedule. A little hunger is okay if your service is right before lunch. Just be prepared for those weeks when the service runs way over and your child is “dying” of hunger.
- An artist’s notebook and colored pencils, crayons or markers as well as pencils or pens. When our daughter was little, she loved sitting with her Nana during sermon time. Nana would draw pictures that went along with the sermon and our daughter would decorate them. (Don’t worry about quality. Stick figures are just fine!) As she got older, our daughter would take her own “sermon notes” by drawing pictures. Young children will not understand most sermons or want to listen to a thirty minute lecture. This activity does get them to focus for at least a few minutes at a time on one point or one example or story in each sermon. During the afternoon, a parent can look at the artwork and discuss with the child what they remember and try to find one point from the sermon to teach the child (on the child’s level).
- Plain notecards. Older children can be given a service assignment for sermon time. After they have taken notes or if it is a week where the sermon is a little too esoteric for children to understand, the children can decorate and make a card to send someone who needs encouragement. They can either deliver it personally with a hug or place it in the mail the next day.
- A prayer notebook. Once again the adult can draw pictures for the child to decorate of what the congregation is praying for that week. As the child gets older, he can keep the list himself and add his own requests. It is also a great idea to record God’s answers a few months later. Make sure your child understands that “no” and “wait” are answers to prayers as much as “yes”.
- A baby, children’s or student Bible. Help your child find the story in the sermon (if there is one being discussed.). Younger children can look at the pictures and older children can read the verses quietly for themselves.
Have you put other things in your child’s worship bag that has made the worship experience more meaningful for her? Please leave a comment below and share with the rest of us what you have done. I would love to have our children re-join us in the auditorium and worship God with their earthly families and their Church family.
Please note: Your children are not perfect, nor should they be expected to be. This is a training process and will take some time. There will be weeks when nothing works. Sometimes, your child needs to be temporarily removed from the service so others can worship. This may be a short time for correction and/or consequences or for the remainder of the service if the child isn’t feeling well or is too out of control to continue. Do not be afraid to sit near the back or in the balcony, especially if you have very young children. There were some weeks I had to remove my child and return more than once. If you remove the loud child quickly (with your hand muting any noise coming from your child), most people are very sympathetic and even glad when the child returns, quieted. I truly believe the effort on the front end is worth having a child who actually gets something out of and enjoys the worship experience as she gets older. If you are struggling, please read my last few posts and get someone in your congregation to give you the extra support you need to be successful.